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Why do children play?

Play is innate and has been part of childhood since the beginning of time. But why?
Play is innate and has been part of childhood since the beginning of time. But why?
Jupiterimages/Creatas/Thinkstock

Ah, the great outdoors: a place where flowers grow, animals roam and children play. Well, maybe not so much that last one.

Between 2002, when the No Child Left Behind Act took effect, and 2007, 20 percent of U.S. school systems decreased or eliminated recess time [source: McMurrer]. This was in order to increase the hours spent drilling students in math and English to pass the mandated proficiency tests. Concern about kids' decreasing play time at school grew so much that headlines prophesied the demise of recess altogether.

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Although that demise may be premature, here's the kicker: Children aren't getting enough play time at home either. Historically, the norm has been for kids to play outdoors with their peers. But a study that looked at playtime in 16 different countries found that kids in all the nations surveyed were spending most of their free time indoors doing schoolwork and watching TV. In fact, the TV-watching rates were higher for those living in developing countries than developed ones [sources: Gray, Singer et al.].

Play is innate, and our instincts to participate in it can be traced back through our animal ancestry. The fact that other mammals, such as chimpanzees and great apes, have a natural urge to play suggests that play occurred well before our species evolved [source: Crain].

Prehistoric 2-year-olds created finger art on cave walls. Ancient Greek children played games like knucklebones, an ancient version of jacks, for fun. In the Middle Ages, boys and girls made their own toys from wood or stones. Even children in Nazi concentration camps played. Play has always been present in the history of humankind, regardless of culture or living condition.

If you're that parent who tells your kids that back in your day, you played outside much more than they do now, you're telling the truth: In another survey, 70 percent of American mothers reported playing outside daily when they were kids, while only 31 percent of their children do so [source: Clements]. And when youngsters do get to play, it's often adult-supervised rather than free play (spontaneous, self-directed play for play's sake).

Although the nature of play is transforming, its role in child development has fascinated researchers for centuries — with good reason.

Two playground supervisors check names at Englewood Recreation Dept. in Denver in 1968. Back then, children played outdoors much more than they do now.
Two playground supervisors check names at Englewood Recreation Dept. in Denver in 1968. Back then, children played outdoors much more than they do now.
Jack Riddle/The Denver Post via Getty Images

It's the end of the day, and you're exhausted, but it's sleepover night, and the kids are still running around in circles chasing their invisible tails. You may wonder: Why are they still playing? How do they still have energy?

You're not alone. Psychologists and philosophers have been pondering the reason children play for years (and probably had many sleepless nights, too). Philosopher Karl Groos argued that our penchant to play tag, climb trees and jump rope evolved by natural selection to teach us the physical and mental skills we need to survive and reproduce. So humans are hardwired to learn and have fun at the same time.

Studies on the reason children play have led to many different conclusions. The classical theories of playare largely philosophical and arose in the 19th and early 20th centuries [source: Saracho and Spodek]:

  • Surplus energy theory (Friedreich Schiller) — Humans build up excess energy that must be released through active play.
  • Recreation or relaxation theory (Moritz Lazarus) — Play restores energy lost from work-related activities.
  • Recapitulation theory (G. Stanley Hall) — Play is a cathartic activity that eliminates inappropriate primitive instincts that were passed down through heredity.
  • Practice or pre-exercise theory (Karl Groos) — Play allows children to practice adult roles and instills in them skills that will later be necessary for survival.

Modern theories of play emerged after 1920 and are supported by empirical research. They include the following:

  • Psychoanalytic theory (Sigmund Freud) — Play is a catharsis that allows children to express their feelings and dispel negative emotions to replace them with positive ones.
  • Arousal modulation theory (Daniel Berlyne) — Children play to regulate the level of arousal in their central nervous system.
  • Metacommunicative theory (Gregory Bateson) — Children play to learn the authenticity of life and the make-believe purposes of objects and actions.
  • Cognitive theories (Jean Piaget and Lev S. Vygotsky)— Piaget believed children use their current mental abilities to solve problems because they can pretend the world is different from the way it really is; Vygotsky believed play develops cognitive powers and encourages abstract thought.

As you've probably realized by now, there is no consensus on the reason children play — and this wasn't nearly an exhaustive list of theories.

One thing can be agreed upon, though: Play is beneficial and essential for a child's development. Through play, kids learn to make decisions, exercise self-control, respond to challenging situations and follow rules. Social play helps kids make friends, and it makes them happy [source: Gray].

But play's many benefits haven't stopped it from falling victim to our fast-paced and digitally preoccupied society.

Video games are a big part of childhood now but children still need time away from screens.
Video games are a big part of childhood now but children still need time away from screens.
Kim Gunkel/E+/Getty Images

As play declines, children have fewer opportunities to socialize and learn how to relate to the world around them. Some say they're becoming less empathetic and more narcissistic. For several decades, anxiety and depression rates in young people have risen, and suicide rates are more than twice what they were in the '50s. The prevalence of mental disorders has also increased [source: Gray]. Although there's no proof that diminishing play time solely causes these issues, it certainly has not helped.

One study showed that U.S. children in 2011 scored 85 percent lower on a creativity test than they did in 1984. Another showed that children in Britain were physically weaker than a decade earlier because of inactive lifestyles [sources: Gray, Campbell]. Unfortunately, telling your children to "go play outside" to get them out of your hair isn't such an easy sell these days. Not with all those smart phones, TV sets and video game consoles lying around the house.

But that doesn't mean that tech is necessarily the harbinger of play's death. Considering kids spend more time using digital media (more than six hours a day!) than doing any other activity besides sleeping, the future of play likely involves technological entertainment [source: Witherspoon and Manning]. Since it'd be impossible to pry controllers and keyboards from the hands of gamers everywhere, some researchers suggest active gaming as an alternative to inactive screen time.

Active games, like Wii Fit, martial-arts simulators and Gamercize steppers, have been popular for years. They require more energy and encourage kids to stay physically active while having fun. However, active gaming can't replace traditional free play, as studies show that they only moderately increase physical activity and decrease body mass index. Also, use of these games decreased over time, something that didn't happen with traditional video games [sources: Foley et al., Scharrer and Zeller]. Nevertheless, active gaming can be a stepping stone to a future with more unstructured outdoor play.

Additionally, there's a movement to bring back recess to American public schools. In 2006, 82 percent of elementary schoolchildren in the Chicago Public School system did not have recess. Thanks to grassroots campaigns organized by parents, all elementary schools had it restored by 2012 [source: COFI].

Companies such as Peaceful Playgrounds offer low-cost playground equipment such as multiuse circles and squares and grids featuring letters and numbers. These are designed to teach educational concepts and lessen the chances of playground mayhem, which may make recess more palatable to school principals. (In 2015, Peaceful Playgrounds was operating in more than 8,000 schools in America).

Inserting more play spaces in cities by integrating hopscotch into crosswalks or creating more play streets (neighborhood streets that close to traffic so kids can have more space to play) can make urban and suburban environments better places for children to play. These ideas may be part of the key to reviving interest among kids in free play.

Now, we just have to limit all that screen time and make them get off the couch.

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Sources

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